The Big Short (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Big Short (2015)

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The story behind the story of the Great Recession is filled with the same moneymaking schmucks who got us into that disaster.  The Big Short tells the story of a few of those working in the background who saw what was coming and still opted to make money.  Adam McKay directs The Big Short, from a screenplay written by McKay and Charles Randolph, and stars Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, and Brad Pitt.

Reliable neighbor when he's paidAdam McKay once directed Will Ferrell to expand on the true meaning of San Diego with such conviction it's become impossible for me to associate the city with anything but a giant mammal's sexual organs.  McKay may have made his mark with the improvisational Anchorman but his direction of The Big Short brings full-circle an obsession eating away at the edges of his movies.  The biggest hint is in The Other Guys were the titular "other guys" are not the black action stars but the white men behind the action stars who really end up saving the day.  It would be easy to read this as a bit racist, but his satirical edge which suggested black men had to act beyond their limits, even in death, while the white-collar criminals get off with leniency worked well.

The Big Short does not work as well.  Part of this has to do with McKay's improvisational approach to directing which creates a stylistically muddled emotional tone.  The other part is something of an ethical hypocrisy which The Other Guys avoided.  It's no surprise to see The Big Short hitting the major awards because of this hypocrisy, which seems to present a critique of the people behind the people who made money off the 2008 Great Recession.  Liberals love this stuff.

The problem is that by creating a story so insular and white the ethical impacts of both the presentation and story overall are muddled.  It's not a readily apparent problem and one which requires a firm grasp of each stylistic detour to get a grasp of.  There's an early scene which should have set my alarms off when a white executive introduces a purportedly non-English speaking Chinese mathematician only to have the man break the fourth wall and tell the audience he really does speak English.  Looking at this scene in context with the rest of The Big Short it becomes easier to see the problem.  This isn't about how the little guys got screwed or how minorities shared an unfair share of the blame, but an exercise in multiple character studies which belittle the audience watching and the people who were really hurt by the Great Recession.

There's a semi-apocalyptic loneliness to the best shots of The Big Short which, if contrasted with a more diversely affected populace, might have been more affecting.

There's a semi-apocalyptic loneliness to the best shots of The Big Short which, if contrasted with a more diversely impacted populace, might have been more affecting.

McKay has this tendency of going so meta he circles back around to insulting our collective intelligence.  Early in the film there's a line of narration delivered by Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who says the finance industry purposely uses complicated terms to confuse the audience.  So we cut to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain some of the terms before telling the audience to screw off and she sips her champagne.  This is "having its cake and eating it too" commentary as McKay acknowledges this stuff usually has to be "sexed up" then winks at us as it sexes it up then tells us to screw off.

It's like going to one of those restaurants where you pay for the staff to insult you.  This gets worse when more celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez come in to show off their respective cooking and acting talents.  I admit, financial terms don't make for inherently gripping film making, but the way McKay returns to the well of celebrity cameos shows surrender in the face of a cinematic dilemma previously solved by the excellent Margin Call and Inside Job.  He's admitting via the style and cameos that, no, this can't be interesting to you sitting there in the audience.

I was a bit insulted by this assumption and maybe you won't be.  But then I would ask that you direct your attention to the myriad of other styles which McKay uses to introduce Vennett, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and Michael Burry (Christian Bale).  Vennett breaks the fourth wall, Baum's seen in a hazy lens as the events of his life led to his depression and aggression, and Burry clicks in with numbers and seemingly random clacking on the soundtrack until they fuse into drum solos which signal the revelations of his mind.  This is entertainment with subjective framing and camerawork which is excellently presented but ultimately hollow.  The Big Short ends on a sarcastic blast against the nearly all white bankers who got through the Great Recession with no problems and the film itself focuses on all white bankers who go through the Great Recession and end up rich.

Steve Carell is great in The Big Short, showing that the dramatic kudos he received for Foxcatcher weren't entirely due to the prosthesis.

Steve Carell is great in The Big Short, showing that the dramatic kudos he received for Foxcatcher weren't entirely due to the prosthesis.

This is an ethical problem which can't be squared away with sarcastic dialogue and winking at the audience.  When the rare minority performer enters the frame it becomes clear that their contribution to the film is to remind us how they were screwed over.  Pointing this out in one part of a rant at the end of the movie does not excuse the exercise in white apologia as the styles of the story lines bring the men's ethical concerns to the forefront.  Maybe if there was a moment where the styles collapsed into one and we saw the effect on "the little guy" it would have worked.

As it stands, The Big Short was proselytizing on a subject in a manner unlikely to convince anyone who wasn't already against the banks.  In fact I came out of The Big Short thinking it did just as good a job supporting the already successful bankers who saw the collapse coming and deciding to profit off it themselves.  You've likely noticed I haven't discussed the performances much.  That's because they are in nearly perfect sync with an ethical argument presented in a way which didn't convince me.

Satire of this type can only be stretched so far and by focusing so intently on these successful white bankers there's no "there" to The Big Short.  I didn't laugh, get upset, nor ponder about how the system is able to perpetuate itself on the misery of others.  The Big Short isn't a rebuke to the system, it's an example of it.

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Tail - The Big ShortThe Big Short (2015)

Directed by Adam McKay.
Screenplay written by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph.
Starring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, and Brad Pitt.

Posted by Andrew

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